Blackjack Choir is ultimate expression of all that James Talley is as a songwriter and performer. Blackjack Choir, his third album for Capitol, was released in 1977 at the dawn of the Urban Cowboy hype, the beginning of the wane of the outlaws, the kicked-open door of punk, and the cocaine heights of disco. Oh yeah, and the period in which mainstream pop and rock sucked more than at any other time in their history up to that point. In other words, it's a miracle the album was made at all by a major label. Talley used basically the same band he'd employed on his previous outings, but added Reggie Young on guitar and a cello and tuba for texture on a couple of songs. The depth was already there, but Blackjack Choir also had dimension. "Bluesman," the opener, kicks it off with Young kicking in on electric, Talley in his smooth tenor riding above a horn section that slips and slides through his lyrics, which are, of course, about the workmanlike side of being a bluesman. "Alabama Summertime" is a country song with pretty steel guitars, but inside its sunny disposition is an ache, a blues, a looking back, a longing. "Everybody Loves a Lovesong" could have been written by Mickey Newbury with its beautiful Dixieland blues and jazz feel, with a tack piano and tuba framing the rhythm section.
Talley's command of Southern musical styles and voices is encyclopedic. "Daddy Just Called It the Blues," a funky urban blues tune that brings a New Orleans second line up against the funk and Chicago blues, sounds like the music Ray Wylie Hubbard and Waylon Jennings were trying to make at the time -- but this stuff has way more soul. But as in all of Talley's works, the words count at least as much as the music. Talley never milks his words for emotion; he just tells his stories in the first or third person, and the worker is the teller of all truth. For prime evidence, check "Migrant Jesse Sawyer," a story so weighty and full it's a shame it wasn't the album's closer. But that comes two track later, after a working-class love song: "When the Fiddler Packs His Case" features Johnny Gimble tearing it up along with dobro boss Josh Graves on a bluegrass stomper that carries the album out on its highest note. Blackjack Choir carries the listener through the many sides of the working life, and all the moods and textures of that experience. It's a masterpiece.